Some thoughts on comping

Buy-TicketsI’ve been thinking about the practice of comping the media lately (alternative and mainstream: art blogs are as much the media as the G&M, bound by the same ideals of integrity, relative impartiality etc–what supposedly distinguishes us from marketing).

It’s customary for performing arts organizations to offer complimentary tickets to members of the media–usually a pair, sometimes if it’s a small space just the one. What is expected in turn is a review of some kind, though the media and the writer maintain the right not to write or run one, for whatever reason.  So, roughly: a pair of tickets for some kind of documented response to the performance.

There’s a lot in this practice that I’m not sure about, concerning both sides.

Writers: are we sure a pair of free tickets cannot affect our judgment, esp for shows that we know cost hundreds of dollars to see? Or, conversely, esp for small productions by scrappy, heart-in-the-right-place upstarts trying to make their name? Do you feel bad about having to write a bad review for a show you got to see for free? What if this keeps repeating itself–free tickets, but the shows are still no good? Are you accruing any obligation here?

One thing I’ve learned is that the process of easy-come tickets separates our experience of getting to shows from the experience of the members of the public. As a buying customer of a Toronto new music festival, for example, I got to learn how chaotic and inconvenient the process of getting your ticket and getting into the venue usually gets. Before I started buying tickets for the second-best-known Toronto opera company, I did not know that their lowest cost, prominently advertised ticket price was fiction (the cheapest ticket for their shows is a dozen dollars more).

Meanwhile, in some quarters, the script for what you feel entitled to upon comping is changing. The other month I got an invitation to a show that also came with an offer of writing a preview for that same show. I said I’d consider the idea and would let them know if I want to do one. When the email with actual tickets came in a couple of weeks later, so did the reminder of doing the preview. I don’t usually do a preview and a review of the same show, but this dual suggestion came kind of tied in with the ticket offer.

Another company’s publicity company got into a habit of emailing the comp’d writers first thing in the morning after the show to check when the review is coming out. When it happened to me, I saw this as a nudge and I told them they should stop doing it, and that no other company does it. I don’t think they are going to stop (theirs is a pretty aggressive publicity company), but they did stop inviting me to their shows, looks like it.

At one point I thought, why don’t the big media buy their own tickets? They can afford them. And no obligations are unconsciously accrued between the writer and the artists. What about freelancers (and bloggers), though? Should we be comped, because we usually don’t have large spending budgets (we can claim the tickets as expenses on self-employed tax returns, but that doesn’t help with the current month’s budgeting)? When I buy my own ticket because I want to support a company, more often than not I end up not reviewing the production. It could be only me; I find reviewing a huge responsibility, and something that’s easy to do lazily, so I try not to, which is a lot of work. Which, if given half a chance, I’ll get myself out of.

Should we, when pairs of tickets come easily, privately take it upon ourselves to bring to the show people in our lives who don’t usually go to the opera–should we be introducing new opera goers to the art form? (I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of years.)

I can’t say I have the answers. What I do now for sure is:

  • companies should know that comping is offered with no strings attached
  • writers should be aware that seeing stuff for free, being greeted by a comm person you know well (sometimes even like), getting to your excellent seat with no hassle is a privileged, pampered way to encounter a show. It will inevitably colour your judgment. (Try a long wait in an unruly line at -7C outside RTH for your discounted festival pass one winter, and we’ll compare notes.)
  • we should all keep in mind the that review is just one person’s opinion based on one particular performance and the reviewer’s own history, preferences, circumstance. It’s not a truth-seeking exercise. It’s not a judgment for all times.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on comping

  1. This covers a lot of ground I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I don’t think comping, in itself, is a huge problem but I think the relationships one develops in the business can be. I can write a less than stellar review about a SHOW I don’t like but find it much harder to be negative about a PERSON I know and like.

    What I find myself doing when I haven’t enjoyed a show (apart from likely not sleeping that night) is try to be as neutrally descriptive as possible while being strictly truthful and only omitting irrelevancies. One doesn’t have to do a full on Kaptainis/AMOP rant imputing all kinds of evil motives to the company or the director or predicting the imminent fall of Western civilization to raise questions about what the director is trying to do and whether they have been successful or to suggest ways people might care to look at it that might not have occurred to them. You do this as well as anyone I know. Poor performances are trickier. If I can see an obvious likely cause I’ll say so; overparted, past sell by date and so on. If it’s just not very good then one needs to say so. Pace LB, I can’t write a review of La Traviata without saying something about the Violetta’s singing, even if she smacks me next time I see her! FWIW I’ve only once declined to review a show I was comped on for that purpose. It was Canadian Childrens Opera and I hated the show. I sent a polite email next day saying that I could see no value in trashing a bunch of kids who were trying hard and therefore would not be writing about the show.

    In the case of small companies who produce stuff I consistently dislike I just stop going. The big boys can suck it up. I’ve written plenty of less than stellar reviews about COC, Opera Atelier and TSO performances and I don’t think it’s affected relationships unduly. I guess though that if I were them and a particular reviewer seemed to be consistently and maliciously negative I would stop comping (cf the spat in Milan a year or two back).

    I guess in summary, LB once said to me that he thought reviewers were a kind of parasite. I disagreed then and I still do. It’s more like symbiosis, at least if we do our job. If we help people to find the shows they enjoy that will encourage them to patronise that company again everybody wins. It’s probably, in the long run, also true of keeping people away from shows they won’t like. II’m sure it’s a lot harder to stomach a show that you hate when you’ve shelled out $200 than to put up with a disappointment among the three freebies one is seeing that week.

    I like your three concluding bullets, especially the last. It’s certainly the framework within which I read other people’s reviews and I hope my readers do the same. It’s not like I’m coy about my general leanings!

    Thanks for starting this conversation.

  2. Just wanted to add one more thing. When Robert H and I did our thing at Massey Opera Club we had a bit of a discussion with the audience about what they wanted from critics. I guess it could best be summarized as “help us understand”. I’ve taken that very much to heart. I really don’t care if people think I’m witty or clever (I know I am! hah) and I have no desire to be seen in the same light as, say, Rupe Christensen. But I would like once in a while to hear someone say “what you wrote made my night at the opera more enjoyable and meaningful”. I know I can’t do that for everyone all the time but it’s what I aspire to.

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